February 22, 2013

The NSFW Files: The Satyricon, by Petronius

The Satyricon, by Petronius
(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite the erotic nature of the works, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
The Satyricon
Review by Karl Wolff
The History: Because The Satyricon is so ancient, the actual publication date had remained ambiguous until recent scholarship pointed towards the 1st century CE. Petronius lived during the reign of Nero, no stranger to sexual kinks. Historically speaking, this novel fragment can be considered pre-Christian. While Christianity was growing during Nero's reign, at that time it was still a new Jewish sect in a provincial imperial backwater. Nero ruled the Roman Empire from 54 to 68. The Edict of Milan, that stipulated that Christians could worship without oppression, was signed by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313. Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380, although persecution of non-Christians and Christian heretics (specifically the Donatists) occurred during Constantine's reign. In terms of names and dates, the Synod of Nicaea, which established the Nicene Creed, would be in 325. St. Augustine's monumental City of God, that laid the groundwork for Catholic dogma, would come out in 5th century CE. To reiterate, The Satyricon is a pre-Christian work.

I make note of the names and dates to underline that much of our modern perceptions have been shaped by Western Christianity. The Satyricon, in its realistic, sometimes bawdy, depictions of everyday Roman life is a means to escape this mentality. (Literature is escapism, right?) This is literary escapism for a positive educational purpose. Even that previous sentence, lending educational credence to a novel full of fornication, satire, and violence, bubbles up from my own subconscious. (I need to make sure this is valuable to readers.) Reading something full of sex, comedy, and killing, just because it has these things, would be immoral. Or not. Just read it for fun. I did. Along the way, you will see Rome at the height of its powers and in the throes of moral decadence (see "Trimalchio's Banquet" below).

The Book: Petronius Arbiter's novel fragment chronicles the misadventures of the narrator Encolpius, a former gladiator, and Giton, his sixteen-year-old slave and lover. Along the way, they meet Ascyltus, a friend of Encolpius, and rival for Giton's affections. The trio meet Quartilla, a priestess to the Priapus cult, in the market and get accused of infiltrating the cult. They are sexually tortured. Encolpius and Giton get split up, with Encolpius sleeping with Quartilla and Giton sleeping with a virgin girl.

A couple days later, Encolpius and his friend Agamemnon get invited to the freedman Trimalchio's house. What occurs is classic satire. Trimalchio, who possesses extreme wealth, exhibits the gaudy tastelessness of the Roman nouveau riche. Elaborate meals, a fake funeral for himself, and supernatural stories about werewolves and witches are told. Trimalchio's antics prove that the crassness and excess of the wealthy are still a rich seam for humorists. (If you're a fan of Suborgatory, you'll love "Trimalchio's Banquet.") When one discusses The Satyricon, "Trimalchio's Banquet" is most often mentioned, a hilarious set-piece that is still funny to this day.

The next day, Encolpius discovers Giton with Ascyltus. There are quarrels and sulking, until they decide to part, Giton leaving with Ascyltus. In the marketplace, Encolpius meets the old poet Eumolpus. Both discuss their woes. Eumolpus tells the story of how he seduced a boy while employed as his tutor. That is the second set-piece of The Satyricon, where the Eumolpus promises the boy he will give him a horse if he'll let him touch him. The seduction occurs over several days and in incremental stages. Later on, Giton returns and Eumolpus and Encolpius vie for Giton's affections. In later sections, Encolpius and Giton encounter pirates and Encolpius suffers from impotence. Because of this affliction, Encolpius seeks out a magical cure. In the end, after other misadventures, Eumolpus is discovered dead and is consumed in an act of ritual cannibalism.

The Verdict: Because of my attitude toward literature, censorship, and education, I will more than likely take the stance that every piece of literature has some value. The issue arises whether X,Y, or Z piece of fiction has "literary value." But, answer me this, what is literary value? Does literary value extend beyond better-than-average craftsmanship? Does literary value accrue once a work has a sustained positive critical reputation? Is literary value gained from attention garnered because said work is a historical artifact? And it is dangerous to ascribe modern literary standards to work that is over two thousand years old? Finally, is the notion of separating literary and historical value a correct path to take? After all, literary critics and historians have two separate sets of standards in what should and shouldn't be preserved.

Those are a lot of questions. But they are questions that need asking. Keep them in mind when we investigate the rest of these novels. Back to the matter at hand, Petronius Arbiter's novel fragment does have both literary and historical value. It is one of the few historical artifacts that illustrate everyday life in the Roman Empire. (One sees The Satyricon's influence in the HBO series Rome. Noted conservative screenwriter John Milius is the showrunner and he guides the show's realism, not shying away from the ordinary violence and sexuality* that permeated Roman culture.) Despite its fragmentary form, The Satyricon foreshadows the ribald masterpieces Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote, The Ubu Plays, and Ulysses. Everything from satire, farce, picaresque, and absurdism owe Petronius a debt. On a more mundane note, the novel fragment also inspired countless students to learn Latin (all the better to read it in the original and hunt down willful mistranslations by prudish translators -- see the Loeb Edition for examples). With our culture desperately working to make the planet more family-friendly, The Satyricon exposes us to a history that is violent, sexually depraved, economically unjust, and delightfully decadent, much like our own.

*This sexuality included relations between an adult male (Encolpius) and Giton, a sixteen-year-old slave. Slavery aside, the underage status of Giton makes this work controversial. While a normal practice in Rome and throughout Europe well into the Victorian age, the issue of underage sex should not be evaded. Again, when this was written, this wasn't an issue. Today, in light of the Catholic Church's numerous pedophilia scandals, it is an important topic to confront. What's the difference here? Immoral acts versus immoral words. Furthermore, The Satyricon is a work of fiction and a historical artifact from an ancient culture. Calls from worried parents, clerics, and politicians to ban this work doesn't solve the immediate problem at hand. The sexual abuse of children is a very real problem for any society. Perhaps giving pedophiles stricter sentences than non-violent pot smokers may be a step in the right direction.
Read even more about The Satyricon: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next month: Gynecocracy, by Viscount Ladywood

Filed by Karl Wolff at 10:00 AM, February 22, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |